Woman spends life protecting final resting places of the dead

June 26, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

When an Eastern Shore man and his elderly mother were denied access to their family graveyard in Wicomico County this month, their state delegate told them whom to call for help.

And a Carroll County family whose relatives are buried in a Garrett County cemetery that has been used as a barnyard for hogs, horses, dogs and chickens received similar advice.

In both cases, family members were directed to a 57-year-old Ellicott City woman who isn't a state government employee. But preservationists and others across the state credit her with successfully pushing legislation to prevent cemeteries from being destroyed or overtaken by development.

Barbara Sieg's commitment isn't to the living, nor even to the living who can't bear to see their family graves destroyed.

"The question is, are we our brothers' keepers in life and in death, and my answer is yes."

Ms. Sieg founded the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites Inc., and this spring the group came of age when Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed two bills sponsored by the group that will take effect Oct. 1.

One will help families gain access to old cemeteries and in turn absolve property owners of liability resulting from cemetery visits. The other will make it a misdemeanor to buy, sell or transport for profit human remains or "associated funerary objects," such as tombstones or statues, that have been looted from graveyards.

"I'm absolutely delighted. This is the first legislation to strengthen the protection of cemeteries in the state of Maryland since before 1900," said Ms. Sieg, who is continuing as co-chairwoman of the coalition's legislative committee after stepping down as president in April.

It's not that she saw her family's grave markers run over by a bulldozer, or that her ancestors' remains were dug up illegally and sloppily and irreverently reburied elsewhere. But all those things happened at a graveyard near her Ellicott City neighborhood.

In 1985, she was president of the St. John's Community Association, and all she knew about the Whipps family cemetery was that she had once told her son, Billy, not to play there because it was filled with poison ivy.

"That was the year that the association learned from neighbors on Valley Road that the old cemetery was threatened by houses that were going in around it," Ms. Sieg remembered. "It was believed that about 100 or more graves had been bulldozed or destroyed."

When the routine desecration of graveyards becomes acceptable, she said, "society has slid morally. I think anyone would say that."

"We have just about gotten ourselves to that point," she said.

Ms. Sieg says she hasn't thought much about what part of her psyche got her involved with cemeteries, but upon contemplating that question, she recalls work she did with her grandmother.

When Ms. Sieg was about 10, her grandmother would take her along on genealogical research visits to the Daughters of the American Revolution's hall of records and the National Archives.

In fact, her two childhood pet cats were named after two ancestors who lived in the 1700s and 1800s in Virginia.

"I love history, I love gardening, I love writing and I love making things happen. All of these passions in my live have come together in the preservation of historical burial sites," Ms. Sieg said.

Atwood Barwick, a Somerset County cemetery preservationist, credits Ms. Sieg with being the prime mover of the legislation in Annapolis, tempering her almost radical fervor for preservation with a willingness to sit down with the opposition.

"I have a lot of admiration for her, I just hope she slows down," Mr. Barwick said. "Barbara is an action person. She's the kind of person who when something comes up, she jumps right on it. If she can't find somebody else to work on something, she'll do it herself.

"Without her, the whole thing wouldn't have gone anywhere."

Despite the advances made by the coalition, Ms. Sieg is concerned that materialism will outweigh morality when it comes to saving cemeteries.

"If making money's more important, you'll bulldoze a graveyard and you'll say that's just business," she said.

She's equally worried that public apathy will make it difficult to sustain the commitment to preserve cemeteries.

The coalition will continue working toward the passage of state legislation -- dropped without comment in committee this year -- that would increase penalties for graveyard desecration and would enable relatives to have a say in the relocation of a burial ground.

Among other things, the proposed legislation would authorize establishment of burial site advisory boards -- such as the one in Howard County for which Ms. Sieg successfully lobbied -- in all Maryland counties.

"I think we're going to turn the corner," Ms. Sieg said. "I hope so.

"I hope I'm going to live to see the day when I won't get calls and the coalition won't get calls like this."

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